The next days passed in a blur for Raelin. Each held as little meaning as the last. She had always held onto hope, clinging to it fiercely, but it seemed to her at last that all hope had fled. She knew she was never going to get out of this prison. The alliance had managed to hold on for three months, but she knew they couldn’t last much longer.
Seeing Raknar again had awoken old memories, and losing him again had torn them apart with cruelty. The pain she now felt showed no sign of lessening. It only remained, threatening to engulf her entirely. Part of her resolutely struggled to survive… to endure. Part of her simply wanted to give up. Neither part seemed to be winning over the other.
It was nearly a week later that the orcs came again, emptying the dungeon entirely. They piled all of the prisoners into a cart and drove south. Raelin didn’t care where they were going. She didn’t care, and she hated that fact. She had always cared. She had always had hope. She desperately wanted that hope to return. She needed it now, more than ever.
The cart came to a stop outside a strange building. It was small, most resembling the concrete bunkers Drake had told her of once. A collection of tubes, pipes, and gauges were set into one side. There was nothing on the other side but a single, heavy, thick metal door. The door was open, and looking at it gave Raelin a strange feeling. It took her a moment to recognize it as fear. She was afraid of what might be within that bunker. There was only one door, only one way in or out. It was not another cell. Without being told, Raelin somehow knew that it was the end of the tunnel she had been in for so long. Just not the end she had wished for.
The prisoners were lined up in front of the bunker, and a marro stepped into view, his yellow skin oddly tinged with green. He licked his lips before speaking.
“This is the day many of you have been waiting for. Today, your troubles will end, and you will be returned to those you love.”
Many of the prisoners lifted their heads at these words. A few even looked hopeful, but there was something Raelin found sinister in the way the marro spoke, something wrong with the way he said returned. A cold dread began to grow in her heart.
The marro grinned. “Yes, soon your trials will be over. All you need do is step into this building. In a few moments, all your deepest wishes will be granted, and you will see those precious to you again.”
A few of the smiles faltered. Some of the prisoners seemed to sense something wasn’t quite right either. However, the orcs closed in, and they had no choice but to march single-file into the thick-walled building. The door clanged shut behind them, and Raelin could hear a bolt being drawn across it.
The bunker contained only one room: four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. No benches, no windows, nothing. It was one solid block of chiseled gray. The only marks in the entire room, aside from the door, were four sinister-looking holes set in the opposite wall.
The holes were about three feet above the floor, and nearly as big around as a child’s head. The pipes that led from them curved out of sight beyond the wall, so that their mouths were pitch black.
The marro’s voice echoed within the room, coming from the holes themselves. “Very good. Now that you are all in here, it is time to deliver on my promise. For some time now, Utgar’s resources have not been spent on summoning. They have been spent on research, and deep within the Ticalla, that research has paid off.
“Some of you may be aware of the existence of Marrden Hounds. These hounds carry a plague, a plague so powerful, it can rip through entire armies given enough time. The alliance has no cure for this sickness. After nearly a month, we do.
“We have extracted this plague from the Marrden Hounds, and weaponized it. You have the honor of being some of the last subjects to test its effectiveness. Breathe deeply, and your worries will end. Very soon now, you will be with your friends once more.
“Breathe deeply. The end has come.”
Dead silence. Raelin looked at her fellow prisoners, and they looked at her. A few shrank against the far wall. After a moment, some ran towards the holes, welcoming the end. One prisoner, a young kyrie woman, turned half way there. “Come on,” she said to the other prisoners who still hung back. “They’re going to kill us anyway, no matter what we do. I’d rather die quickly than in agony. This is the end. Our fight is over.”
“No,” said Raelin, quite suddenly. The passive despair that had weighed down her heart for so long had lifted. It was now replaced with a different sensation, one that Raelin found familiar, and comforting.
“What?” asked the woman. “Why prolong your agony? Give up.”
“Give up?” repeated Raelin, a hint of anger in her voice now. “When I was seven, my father was claimed by the war. My mother followed a month later. I know what it is like to grow up without your true parents. I know the pain you have to live with. If there is the slightest chance that I can prevent that, I will not have anyone else suffer that pain because I gave up.”
A terrible hissing sounded from the pipes. Smoke, sickly green, began pouring out of them, into the room.
“Keep your hope,” the woman said. “We all end up dead one way or another.” With that, she ran towards the pipes, falling to her knees before one, and breathing deeply.
It was then that the screaming began. Those that had breathed in the plague began twitching, thrashing about on the floor, screaming in pain. Blood leaked from their mouths, mixed with foam. Their eyes rolled back in their heads, and they all shuttered to a stop, still and lifeless, their muscles tense, frozen forever more. The rest of the prisoners shrank back against the wall.
The green smoke slowly slithered forwards, hiding the bodies it had already claimed. It filled the room, and then languidly advanced, covering the floor, inch by steady inch.
A few more prisoners dived into it. They screamed, convulsed, and then were still. After a moment, they were followed by the rest, save for Raelin. She alone watched the last of them die, and then be hidden by the smoke. It then reached for her. There was naught but two feet separating her from death.
Raelin knelt. She would not succumb and throw herself to the smoke. Hope flared within her, a steady defiance. There was no logic behind it, no reasoning, just calmness. That same calmness she had always admired in Drake. She looked at the smoke, and felt no fear. Soon, very soon now, she would see her father and mother again.
There was a resounding clang on the door. Raelin jumped up. A terrible dent was in the door. The shape was strange, almost as if a three-toed foot had struck the metal. The dent widened, accompanied by a terrible screeching of metal on metal. Raelin could hear hinges tearing, slowly, metal grinding. She looked uncertainly at the smoke. It was inches from her skin. She inched along the wall to the door. She had mere seconds to live.
With a terrible scream of disintegrating metal, the door flew outwards. It did not merely open. It was flung from the doorway by several meters. And there, standing where not but solid metal had been but moments before, was Drake.
Without a word, Drake grabbed Raelin by the arm, and pulled her from the building, even as the plague reached her. She stumbled to the grass, coughing up blood violently, feeling the plague burn through her body. Fortunately, it seemed she had not inhaled enough. Her muscles contracted painfully, but then relaxed. Eyes streaming from the pain, Raelin staggered to her feet, and looked upon a scene of havoc.
There was a hill nearby, and upon this hill stood Zetacron and nine Omnicron Snipers. They were all firing down on the orcs below, who were running about without order. In front of the bunker, Drake was locked in a vicious duel with the marro.
Raelin staggered backwards when she saw Drake’s face. It was not calm. It was not reassuring. It was full of only one thing: terrible, consuming, unyielding wrath.
The marro seemed to realize this as well. He broke and tried to run. Without a moment’s hesitation, Drake fired his grapple arm directly into the marro’s shoulder, and viciously yanked him back. The marro tried to defend himself, but Drake threw aside his meager defense as if it were paper. He swung again and again, dealing wound after wound. The marro’s green blood soon stained Drake’s sword, and still he continued to hack away.
Finally Raelin, regaining her senses, ran to Drake. “Stop!” she cried. “Stop it!”
Drake paid her no heed, and raised his sword for the final stroke. Without quite thinking, Raelin pulled it from his grasp.
Drake turned on her so fast that Raelin took a few staggering steps away from him. For a split second, the anger on his face was all directed at her. But only for a moment. His eyes flicked to her face, and he saw her through the veil of rage. The terrible light in his eyes died almost instantly. He was Drake once more.
“Are you all right?” he asked, approaching her. His voice was soft, calm.
Raelin relaxed. “Not really,” she said, “but I’ll be fine.”
Drake gently pulled his sword from her grasp. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I’ve been looking for you for three months, and after all this time… I couldn’t hold it in.”
Zetacron arrived. “Jandar has been notified of your success, Drake,” he said. “There will be a ship waiting for you at the hidden port within three days.”
“Thank you, Zetacron,” Drake said. “Make sure every last store of this plague is destroyed. Then send the Omnicrons out on wide patrol. I am getting Raelin home, and I’d prefer not to have to kill anyone else in my way.”